WASHINGTON — The US Department of Veterans Affairs is processing claims at the fastest pace in its history in hopes that hundreds of thousands of veterans will be able to access health care and benefits under the landmark Toxic Exposure Act passed by Congress earlier this year. apply for.
Veterans set an all-time record for benefits claims filed online in August, a day after President Joe Biden signed the bill into law, and more than 136,000 have filed for benefits under the Toxic Risk Act by mid-November. applied for. The VA expects the number of veterans and living family members to reach more than 700,000 in the coming months.
To address the rise in claims, the VA is hiring more staff to provide health care and process applications, but officials expect backlogs to increase in the short term.
Joshua Jacobs, who has been performing the representative duties of the VA under secretary for benefits, said in mid-November that the VA is “in a better position to deal with this increased workload” than in 2013, when the agency was expanded. was formally reprimanded for allowing the backlog to exceed 600,000.
“For members who followed the claims backlog for a long time, you might ask, ‘Are we going to see the same story today?’ he told members of the US Senate at a hearing. “I’m pleased to say that today we are better positioned to deal with this increased workload.”
Jacobs said moving to a paperless system and hiring thousands of people will help the VA avoid a significant backlog in the coming months as hundreds of thousands of veterans are expected to apply for health care and benefits. which are part of the toxic exposure legislation known as the PACT Act,
“As we continue to encourage more veterans and survivors to apply for their PACT Act benefits, we expect inventory and backlogs to increase in the short term,” he said at an oversight hearing of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. Huh.”
Jacobs noted that the VA has reduced its total backlog to its lowest in years, below 150,000 claims this month. He also said the agency is encouraging veterans and eligible surviving family members of deceased veterans to apply now through the VA’s website or with an accredited representative at a veterans service organization no later than August 10, 2023. earliest possible effective date.
The VA has set up a website at va.gov/pact as well as a phone number, 800-698-2411, for veterans to call for more information or to file a claim.
‘Hiccups are about to happen’
Committee chairman Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester said everyone expects “hiccups to come” in implementing the sweeping legislation that is the largest expansion of health care and benefits in VA history.
“Veterans who previously filed claims may now find that many more of their siblings have joined the line,” Tester said. “But the VA must make sure that each of them gets the right decision as quickly as possible.”
As more new faces appear in hospital waiting rooms, Tester said, “the VA must ensure they receive the quality care they deserve.” He also said that while the panel works on some new legislation during the next Congress, the committee’s primary focus will be on oversight of the VA.
Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, the committee’s top Republican, said his main priority for the panel is “proper, adequate implementation of legislation” that Congress has passed, including the PACT Act.
Sheriff Elnahal, the under secretary for health, said the VA is “working to reach every veteran who may qualify for the new benefits and care to make sure they meet what the toxic exposure law does.” and how to apply for benefits”.
Elnahal said department leaders are looking to increase the staffing to handle the influx of veterans and “initiate new research on toxic exposure.”
The department is reaching out to more than 300,000 veterans who have entered information into the Burn Pits Registry. Over 80 events are planned in the week of December 10 to inform ex-servicemen about the new law.
Elnahal told the panel, a standard toxic exposure screening has been introduced for veterans going to primary care clinics, and “in just one week, this clinical screening reached 166,000 veterans with more than 37% reporting exposures.” It’s over.”
The VA, Elnahal said, is working on a plan to boost hiring in rural areas, though he told the committee that would happen if Congress implements a portion of the president’s budget request that removes the $400,000 cap on salaries. It could be simple.
“It is becoming more difficult – on the physician, dentist and podiatrist side – to recruit the right people, especially in rural areas, as wages rise and the health care labor market becomes more difficult,” he said. . “And we’ll be able to pay more innovatively to encourage the right behavior among these physicians.”
needs more outreach
The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America organization believes that the implementation is off to a good start so far.
But the organization, which represents more than 425,000 members, says both the VA and the US Department of Defense need to do much more to reach all veterans who are eligible.
“IAVA along with our VSO partners played a major role in passing this landmark piece of legislation into law, so we are very vested in its success,” said Tom Porter, IAVA’s Executive Vice President for Government Relations, in a written statement. Told.
“We are encouraged by the energy put into the early roll-out of the new legislation by VA Secretary McDonough and his team, as well as by the commitment to oversight by the House and Senate veterans committees,” he said. “All parties, including the VSO, should make every effort to inform veterans about their new benefits.”